September 12, 2012

Maine seems to take threat of EEE in stride

Residents of Lebanon – where a second mosquito-borne illness is confirmed – are wary, but not worried.

By North Cairn ncairn@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

LEBANON — Although both Eastern equine encephalitis and West Nile virus now have been confirmed in the small York County community of Lebanon, most residents are taking the threat in stride.

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Dave Page cleans up a garden on his 16-acre farm on Upper Guinea Road in Lebanon on Tuesday. He wasn’t wearing insect repellent, but he says he does go in at dusk before most of the mosquitoes come out. Eastern equine encephalitis – a rare but serious viral disease spread by mosquitoes – was confirmed here last week.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Tom Ledue, principal of Hanson and Lebanon elementary schools, says school personnel are trying to “educate our kids” about EEE and West Nile “but not scare them. They don’t need to be afraid of going outside.”

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WHAT IS EEE?

According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Eastern equine encephalitis, or EEE, is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. It's a rare illness in humans, and only a few cases are reported in the U.S. annually. Severe cases – those marked by inflammation of the brain – begin with the sudden onset of headache, high fever, chills and vomiting and can progress into disorientation, seizures or coma. EEE is one of the most severe mosquito-borne diseases in the U.S., with an estimated 33 percent mortality rate and significant brain damage in most survivors.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The state's first confirmed cases of EEE this year caused the deaths of 30 ringneck pheasants last Thursday on an undisclosed farm in Lebanon. State health officials informed town selectmen Friday, and they alerted residents Monday. West Nile was found last month in mosquito surveillance pools from Lebanon north to Gorham and Standish.

The arrival of the viruses "sounds alarming to people," said state epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears. "We have a lot of mosquitoes in Maine in September. Everyone should be aware, but it is not time to be afraid."

Of 45 species of mosquitoes in Maine, only five or six carry these diseases, Sears said.

"All you can do is hope for the best," said Dave Page, who with his wife, Betty, has lived in Lebanon for nearly a half-century.

"I've been worried about (the virus) for years," he added. A neighbor lost a horse to EEE several years ago, he said, and the husband of "a real nice young couple" in town had been diagnosed with an insect-borne disease that caused neurological damage from which he has suffered for two years.

But despite the two viruses hitting so close to home, Page was outside Tuesday tending his wife's zinnias, dahlias and sunflowers. She was working rows of bush beans. He wore a big straw hat for sun protection but not a speck of insect repellent.

"Mosquitoes?" he shrugged. "We have tons of butterflies and dragonflies ... and a couple of bats." He's convinced they'll do the trick.

Both Page and his wife admitted that they were disturbed to hear about the EEE discovery. They have found a couple of finches dead on their property this summer, and birds -- particularly game birds, such as the infected pheasants in Lebanon -- are "highly susceptible" to the viruses, said Sears. Captive birds can suffer fatal infection "because they're so close to each other" in cages "and they can transmit to each other through pecking (order) behavior" that may result in small cuts or scratches. Blood carries the viral infections.

"We know it's in the birds," Sears said. The recent EEE infections had shown up in the same area in which West Nile had been found earlier in August, he said.

Near the Page home, Garrett Paulino, 22, and Justin Fitton, 21, both of Lebanon, were out jogging. Fitton said he was "somewhat concerned" about reports of EEE, but Paulino shrugged off the threat. Neither had used insect repellent before leaving home.

Down the road at Hanson Elementary, the school day was winding down and Stephanie Richard was just arriving with her younger children to pick up her 8-year-old daughter Emma, now in third grade.

She said she hadn't been thinking about EEE or West Nile, but then mentioned that she was awaiting word on the condition of her brother, Adam Herson of Wakefield, N.H., who is being treated for a suspected West Nile infection.

"You do the best you can," said Tammy Baxter, director of operations at Goodall Hospital in nearby Sanford, as she herded her 5-year-old daughter, Jenna, into the car outside the school. "It's no different" than other commonplace risks that require specific precautions, she said. "Like a tick."

Hanson Elementary is next to Lebanon Elementary School, the two properties separated only by a short footbridge over a small creek. It's the kind of prime mosquito-breeding habitat -- swamps and wetlands -- common in the sprawling rural town of about 4,000.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Richard Dyer of Lebanon watches his grandson Joey Dyer, 3, as he plays in the yard Tuesday. Thirty farm-raised pheasants died recently in Lebanon from Eastern equine encephalitis. It’s rare in humans, and only a few cases are reported in the U.S. annually.

  


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